In Florida’s standardized testing fiasco, a sober assessment of what went wrong

Florida education officials recently posted a frank internal report about what led to the standardized testing flop that has consumed the ed reform debate for the past two months and sparked the biggest backlash yet against the state’s accountability system. Unfortunately, it received virtually no media coverage (one exception here), which is a bit head-scratching considering both the context and contents.

It essentially says, “We messed up.”

“The decision to make a significant change in scoring FCAT Writing in one year was flawed,” the report says. “Throughout the lifetime of the FCAT, there has never been such a dramatic change in scoring criteria in such a short time.”

Led by former Education Commissioner John Winn (pictured here), the just-the-facts review contrasts sharply with the bomb throwing from critics who fought change every step of the way and now deny progress, particularly for low-income and minority students. It is also, in a way, a good sign for the future – a reflection of leadership that is willing to admit mistakes and find remedies.

The report is humbling. It says the state moved too far, too fast in ramping up scoring criteria. External communication with school districts wasn’t strong enough. Internal communication with new Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson was lacking. Also, department staff didn’t move soon enough to determine potential impact of raising the bar: “Had this been done, perhaps the committee members and the Department would have changed the decision to move forward in less than a year.”

Robinson and other education officials have acknowledged some of these mistakes in general terms. But the report goes into more detail. It references confusion in a key July 5, 2011 memo to superintendents, and a year-long span in which the state Board of Education did not receive briefings about the changes. It points out that budget cuts forced the state to whittle away at a more optimal test design, and says transition at the top may have contributed to the communication problems. (After Gov. Rick Scott forced out former Commissioner Eric J. Smith, Winn stepped in as interim until the board hired Robinson.)

There’s no doubt the mistakes have undermined confidence in the state’s education system. It will require time and care to repair that. But it’s also true that many critics have gone beyond the kind of legitimate beefs soberly recounted in the report to flirt with demagoguery.

“It’s as if the Department of Education’s idea was to give teachers a poke in the eye,” one newspaper columnist wrote about the writing test, “and didn’t much care that kids would also feel the punch.”  After school grades dropped this week, the Tampa Bay Times editorialized, “FCAT farce just gets worse,” while the Palm Beach Post raged, “Gov. Scott helped create the FCAT monster.” Never to be outdone, the Orlando parents group Fund Education Now suggested child abuse:

“What kind of a state,” it wrote, “purposely uses a faulty instrument to hurt children and harm their schools?”

Over the past decade and change, Florida’s track record in ed reform has been pretty good, particularly for the students who were most overlooked. Those gains didn’t come because the state was reckless, but because it mostly struck the right balance between urgency and realism.

In this case, that didn’t happen. But it’s not insignificant that the state is willing to own up to it.

One Comment

  1. It is not remotely acceptable that layers of folks allowed a comparison to be made between one test and a new test with many variations in adminstration and scoring. I am not hearing an apology but instead a twisting of concerns stated by folks intelligent enough to note a foul stink to the situation. YIKES!
    How exactly is it a child advocating stance to smooth over incompetence at the head quarters which governs over high stakes testing?
    I understand everyone has to make a buck but is there a line where one refuses to do so if it means supporting bullpucky? Where is the addressing of the correction of this fiasco by a return to the prior mode of scoring? What part of the accountability plan were they following when they had their phone call? Is it in fine print that if the results look bad enough, change them. Hmmm…fairness. reliability, and validity seem to be core to accounatbility sytems. Florida’s lacks reliability as seen by evaluations of proficiency rising from 30 to 80 as a result of a phone call. Fairness has long been missing as the system has long been known to have been skewed by SES. Validity? I can’t say but haven’t spelling, capitalization, and punctuation always been important in writing? Not on the FCAT!!!!
    Some of Florida’s ridiculous moves have created the unrest and empowered folks. Think Senate Bill 6. Think Parent Trigger. Hmmmm. Perhaps Jeb’s stronghold on education in the Sunshine State is under siege..and maybe the students can be freed from becoming commodities and schools protected from having the goal of turning a profit for adults rather than students. Just maybe. Some Florida legislators seems to have forgotten their duty to hear the majority. Think SB 6 again. Think Parent Trigger again. Why should 736 avoid a repeal when the state demonstrates incompetence with the tests it administers, scores, and attaches high stakes? The times, they are a changing.
    Will this page be detailing and listing all the Florida legislators and their ties to charters? I think that would be most interesting.
    For fun, look at FB numbers. Jeb’s foundations combined equal about 1000 . Stop SB6 years later has 40,000. There are now so many opposition FB groups it is hard to keep track of them . Jay Greene has a miniscule following yet a national voice. Jeb may need to trade in his crown as he is no longer the king of Florida’s education and perhaps look at golf shoes.